A fitting way to spend a cold afternoon on Martin Luther King Day, I went to see Hidden Figures. Based on the book by Margot Lee Shetterly, Hidden Figures: The American Dream and the Untold Story of the Black Women Mathematicians Who Helped Win the Space Race, this is the true story of the women who worked for NASA as mathematicians in the early 1940s.
These brilliant women played a role in our country’s greatest achievements in space at the time of the civil rights movement, making their story even more inspirational. Shetterly came to tell this story as her father was a scientist at Hampton’s Langley Research Center — the first field facility for the National Advisory Committee for Aeronautics (NACA) which later became NASA.
In a recent interview with PBS NewsHour, Shetterly told Nsikan Akpan, “I knew the women. Many of them worked with my dad, and I’d seen them growing up. But I didn’t know much about their particular stories — how they had come to work at NASA, or why there were black women working there.” (see full story here).
The women chronicled in the story are Dorothy Vaughan, Mary Jackson, and Katherine Johnson. These women worked through discrimination, and applied their mathematical genius to advance the space program.
“Each would ultimately make major contributions to aeronautics. Vaughn mastered computer programming and helped the agency transition from human to IBM computers. Jackson became NASA’s first black female engineer and a leader in research on supersonic flight. And Johnson made the crucial calculations that guided the late John Glenn and America’s first manned missions into sub-orbit, orbit and beyond” (PBS.org).
Telling their story, and recognizing their contribution is so important to our understanding of race, discrimination, and achievement in modern America. Along the way, each of these women had teachers who saw their potential, suspended race and gender stereotypes and pushed them to break barriers to succeed. No matter what.
Good for Shetterly for telling their story.
These are my reflections for today.